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It shouldn’t come as a surprise that David Mamet would eventually write “Race,” his 2009 manifesto on perhaps the only topic in American discourse still so contentious as to begin a conversation with yelling. The first few moments of his four-hander, now enjoying a scintillating production at Road Less Traveled, indeed begin with acrimony, contention and confusion.

This is race in America in the 21st century.

Mamet’s barking script sticks close to home, in which articulated banter trumps messy rage, and intellectual argument trumps expository observation. This conversation about race, held between three attorneys – two African-American, one white – and one white client plays out like an experiment, a caged match of wit, emotion and power.

While “Race” didn’t receive the consensus of acclaim of Mamet’s milestones – “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” “American Buffalo,” “Glengarry Glen Ross” – it still is more astute than many on the topic. Where August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” of 10 on the African-American experience throughout the last century, are windows on private lives, Mamet’s angle is to expose humankind’s private crimes.

In “Race,” we’re confronted with the lies we tell each other – ourselves – for this country’s explosive legacy of race. Mamet’s ability to get you on the bus, accelerate well past physical comfort, and then suddenly stop right before the wall, is in full force here, lest a “Race” skeptic be worried. This is Mamet in his most comfortable danger zone.

Director Scott Behrend has a fine production on his hands. Design on this converted stage space (a modest, former movie theater) continues to push the limits of efficiency, character and impact. John Rickus’ twilight lighting casts shadows on Reed Rankin’s communicative set, a sophisticated law office flanked by towering bookcases of legal case after legal case. The shelves of repetitive red bare down on the office’s showroom, our proverbial boxing ring, all the while hinting at the clench of the sequined red dress worn by the never-seen plaintiff. Caught between these many legs is our need for release, redemption, emancipation.

Our cast carries us to this point of clarity with ease, uphill as it may be. Dave Hayes plays the suffocating, arrogant defendant Charles, accused of raping an African-American woman with whom he claims to have been romantically involved. Hayes goes so far as to reek of racism that he does so near-silently, in quiet protest to his legal team’s suggestion that he plead out. Charles is too entitled to listen to anyone else, a flaw that gets him into trouble in life, dirty details of which are dragged up in research.

His lawyers, Henry Brown and Jack Lawson, played by Pete Johnson and Doug Zschiegner, respectively, know how to win – at first. This is how you try and win a race case in the American judicial system, so they announce. When Charles’ case throws them enough surprises to make them scratch their heads down to their bloody stumps, their own stance on the case’s racial politics divides their defense; a 90-minute (intermissionless) argument ensues.

Zschiegner’s command (and commanding build) is smartly tempered by a strain of compassion. He grounds Jack enough to set up our eventual discovery of his own questionable character, and even then, he can capably save himself. Zschiegner gives Jack the razzle dazzle we expect from a defense attorney of his stature, even if he’s upfront about it being a complete farce.

Johnson, as Henry Brown, is Zschiegner’s equal, albeit in an entirely different way. His smaller frame informs this difference, no doubt, though you’d never notice their differences. Johnson sticks closely to his character’s legalese, arguing the facts of his emotions with as much emotional distance as an effective lawyer must have. This is about winning, not about being right.

Danica Riddick, as junior attorney Susan, is effective as Mamet’s wild card. Susan’s role is bigger than we might otherwise assume, and Riddick builds cautiously to her breaking point. Riddick can hold her own against these chest-thumping characters, though. Her performance is neither expected nor radical – perfect for a Mamet reading – though it drips with insight to which we should all pay close attention.

The truth, as it were, is not what you think, these lawyers would argue. It doesn’t matter, this production confirms.

theater review

Four stars

What: “Race”

Where: Road Less Traveled Theatre, 639 Main St.

When: Through May 18

Tickets: $15-$33

Info: 629-3069,www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org"> www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org